Kevin Drum - March 2010

The Presidential Bubble

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 8:20 PM EST

Time's Karen Tumulty reports on Obama's healthcare speech today:

When I go to political events, I generally like to talk to people who attend them. You learn a lot that way.

Not today. I arrived at the President's health care speech at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., about 45 minutes early, hoping I might chat with some of the Pennsylvanians who were here. No such luck. The press was stuck behind two sets of barriers. I tried asking several times (nicely, I promise) to wander a bit and talk to people, but was told I would have to wait until after the event. (Both the crowd and I had been through security screening.)

Okay.

So after the event, I attempted to talk to people as they left. That effort, too, was shut down by the security people.

So all I can report is this: The President gave a speech on health care this morning. People applauded and cheered. What motivated them to be here, and what bearing this issue might have on their individual lives — well, I can't answer that.

I don't know if this is standard behavior or not. Maybe it was just a mistake by some overzealous security folks. But it's worth publicizing. When George Bush did this stuff it drove us nuts. Obama doesn't deserve a pass.

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Democrats and National Security

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 6:06 PM EST

A new poll by Democracy Corps and Third Way warns that Democrats are losing ground to Republicans in the fight over national security. So they tried out a few talking points to see what would make people feel better about the party. How about "proven FBI interrogation techniques worked on the Christmas bomber"? That was OK but not great. "Obama has raised America's standing in the world"? Eh. "Civilian courts do a great job of convicting terrorists faster and better"? Eh again. "Obama's actually doing the same stuff as George Bush"? That had a negative effect.

So what did work? Answer: using predator drones to kick ass on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which made people a stunning 50 points more confident in the Democrats. Draw your own conclusions.

The Left and Healthcare

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 4:05 PM EST

Jane Hamsher, as we all surely know, is passionately opposed to the current healthcare bill winding its way through Congress. But Matt Yglesias asks:

How Many Divisions Has Jane Hamsher?

That's what Joseph Stalin supposedly asked about the pope when it came time to divvy up postwar Europe. Likewise, the suggestion here is that Jane Hamsher doesn't really represent a very big or very dangerous faction of the left.

Maybe so. But if you asked Stalin's successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, about the influence of the pope, he'd probably sneer a little less. In absolute terms, Jane may not represent a huge number of people or a vast amount of money, but she certainly seems like the linchpin of a disaffected left that could easily represent the difference between success and failure for a bill that's likely to come down to one or two votes. Speaking for myself, I sure wish she could look past the disappointments — most of which were sadly inevitable — and instead focus all that energy on the big picture of what the Democratic healthcare bill means both for real people right now and for the likelihood of further reform in the future. This is our last crack at this for a good long time.

The Odious Liz Cheney

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 3:04 PM EST

I haven't gotten around to blogging about this yet, but as you probably know by now Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney have recently been beating the drum about a group of Justice Department lawyers who had previously defended accused terrorists:

Senate Republicans have demanded details of the lawyers' past work and Liz Cheney’s group “Keep America Safe” has questioned their “values." A drumbeat of Republican criticism forced the Justice Department reluctantly to identify seven of them last week. But the harshness of the criticism — Keep America Safe labeled a group of them the “Al Qaeda Seven” — has provoked a backlash from across the legal establishment.

Cheney probably thought this was just another soft target for her endless crusade to convince America that Democrats will get us all killed. But guess what? Big time lawyers don't much like being attacked, they tend to stick together on stuff like this even across ideological lines, and they have lots of money and power that allow them to fight back. Methinks Liz bit off more than she expected. Plus there's this speculation from a lawyer friend of mine:

Some of these [attorneys] are bigwigs at big law firms. Their egos will want their pound of flesh. It will be interesting to see what steps they take. Cheney's shop is not a government entity and not entitled to immunity (the shield that keeps a lot of defamation lawsuits at bay). The people who were attacked — while high profile in their respective professions — may not rise to the sufficiently high level of public figure, where you need evidence of malice directed at the individuals specifically.

Im sure Cheney and Kristol looked at this from all angles, so there may be an ace in the hole somewhere that I'm missing (I advise on defamation in general terms, but I'm not a litigator).

I'm sure we won't be seeing anything soon. If anything does get filed (other than a TRO — which is probably worthless since the ad has been taken down), it won't be for a while. My guess is that they'll wait until they have some measurable damages. And these are probably already mounting.

Having seen things like this pop up before when I was at a big firm, they will likely have to send out firmwide correspondence to all clients advising them of this matter. Most firms would heed the advice of PR people to get in front of this before aggressive conservative-oriented law firms start trying to use it to pry big name clients away. And if that happens, hoo-boy.

Internally, they will need to reassure associates and junior partners that their careers have not been tainted and please don't abandon ship.  They may even need to beef up personal security for their families. All of this would be reasonably foreseeable damages and particularly hard to avoid. Of course, there may be incentives not to bring suit — mostly political, or institutional (firms don't like to get in the habit of suing people in their own names) — but when you're dealing with big-wig egos, there is an unsurprising lack of restraint when they have been personally crossed.

My uninformed guess is that a defamation suit is unlikely. Big law firms probably prefer to generally keep a low profile even when the provocation is considerable. And the legal end of this is pretty uncertain, since it's right at the intersection of public/private considerations and libel/privacy law. Still, you never know. All it takes is one firm to get pissed off enough. And it would be interesting to see a bunch of high-priced litigators arguing this out in open court, wouldn't it?

No Deal on Gitmo

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 2:36 PM EST

Does the White House really believe that if it agrees to try KSM and the other 9/11 plotters in military tribunals instead of civilian courts, then in return Republicans will agree to shut down Gitmo and move its prisoners to a domestic site? I guess I was living in a cave this weekend or something, because I'd never heard about this.

But anyway, you will be non-shocked to learn that such a deal is vanishingly unlikely. Greg Sargent reports:

Don Stewart, a spokesperson for Mitch McConnell, tells me the GOP leadership position will remain the same: Guantanamo, not a U.S.-based facility, is the right place to hold the detainees.

Michael Steel, a spokesperson for John Boehner, suggests the same: “Our focus is keeping dangerous terrorists from being brought to this country, where they will have the same rights as American citizens.”

And Liz Cheney’s group, Keep America Safe, says No Deal. “We are concerned by reports that this will be part of a deal to close Guantanamo Bay and bring terrorists onto US soil,” a statement sent over by the group says. “We continue to call on the President to reverse his decision to close the facility.”

Big surprise, eh? I now return you to your regular programming.

Healthcare and the Real World

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 1:58 PM EST

Over the weekend, Theda Skocpol wrote a post begging liberals to knock off the circular firing squad and start supporting real-world healthcare reform:

PROGRESSIVES need to cut the posturing over a currently unattainable (and in any event already hollowed out version of the) "public option.".... Criticizing what is now attainable is the real defeatism, Adam Green! Conservatives are hammering wavering moderate Dems; use your resources to run moderate ads against private insurers in their districts. Praise the President's plan and help him get the votes. Same for MoveOn.

....As for PRO-CHOICE versus PRO-LIFE advocates, give us all a break from your extremist posturings...."FEMINISTS" who are pushing on abortion-funding limits rather than supporting American women need to examine their consciences....CATHOLIC PRO-LIFE DEMOCRATS also need to get a grip on core values. Do they — or the U.S. Catholic Bishops — really want to be responsible for scuttling access to health care for millions?

Read the whole thing. Its language is blunt and, in places, insulting. But sometimes that's what it takes.

The current bill isn't perfect, but the combination of community rating at the national level with an individual mandate is likely to be the beginning of the end for private health insurance as we know it. Medicaid expansion and insurance subsidies will provide access to healthcare for 30 million more Americans. Caps on out-of-pocket expenses will prevent countless medical bankruptcies. The cost containment measures — including, yes, the hated excise tax — may be modest, but they're the most substantial effort on this front in decades. And most important, this bill, for the first time ever, officially commits the United States to the proposition that every legal resident should have healthcare coverage. That's a huge change both culturally and politically.

And what are the holdups? The absence of a watered-down public option that would have had a modest impact at best? But look: If we pass the current bill, we'll have a meaningful public option before the decade is out. If we don't, we won't.

The possibility of public funds being used for abortions? Go read Tim Noah on this. For better or worse, it's just not a legitimate issue. The restrictions in the Senate bill are pretty strong.

Lack of public funding for abortion? That's just the reality of present-day America. It was never going to be any other way. And let's be honest: the current legislative wording would have no more than a tiny real-world impact on abortion funding anyway. It's available now in some states via Medicaid, and that won't change. It's covered under private healthcare plans, and that won't change either. It's not funded by any other federal mechanism, and that won't change. Someday, hopefully, this will all change, but that's going to take a lot more work on public opinion. In the meantime, a bill that helps millions of poor and working class women get healthcare they couldn't otherwise afford far outweighs the minuscule effect it would have on access to abortion.

It is, finally, time to step up. Like it or not, Scott Brown's victory in Massachussetts drew a very strong boundary around healthcare reform. We can either pass what we have or pass nothing at all. Passing what we have (with a few small tweaks via reconciliation) will help millions, put us on a path toward ever more serious healthcare reform, and give progressives their biggest victory in decades. But only if progressives stop moping and get behind it.

So if you're one of the mopers, knock it off! And if your congressman is one of the mopers, pick up the phone and complain. Tell 'em you want to pass the bill. Now.

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Yet More Rahm

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 1:13 PM EST

Another big Rahm Emanuel article? Crikey. But anyway, here's an excerpt from Peter Baker's upcoming piece in the New York Times magazine:

Emanuel, who declined to talk to me on the record for this article....

Isn't this basically a big trumpet that says Emanuel did talk to Baker, but only off the record? Is that kosher?

Quote of the Day: The Oscars

| Mon Mar. 8, 2010 12:33 PM EST

From Ezra Klein, who couldn't make it to the end of the Oscar — excuse me, Oscar® — telecast last night:

Anyway, the Oscars certainly won the Oscar for most overlong television program I watched this year. This is their umpteenth award in that category. 

There's a weird backstory here. For years and years, the Oscars were scheduled to go from 6 pm to 9pm, but in reality they always ran until nearly 9:30. This was plainly deliberate, but for some reason the Academy never admitted this and everyone else went along with the gag. I've never understood the reasoning behind this, but it led to endless jokes about how long the show was.

A few years ago this changed. The telecast is now scheduled to go from 5:30 to 9:001, and guess what? The producers hit their mark every time. It's a 3½-hour show, it's always been a 3½-hour show, and it doesn't run long. It runs exactly as long as they intend it to.

But they still make jokes about how long it is. Steve Martin's version last night was "The show went so long that Avatar is now set in the past." But other awards shows go for 3 hours, so it's not as if 3½ is really all that spectacularly different. Strange stuff. I've always figured there must be an interesting explanation for all this, but I've never seen it. 

In other Oscar news, the presenters are back to announcing "And the winner is," which went out of style some time ago because, you know, everyone's a winner and we don't want to deflate anyone's self esteem by suggesting that all the non-winners might actually be losers. But now it's OK again. I wonder what the story behind that was?

However, presenters still haven't figured out that they don't have to hunch down to speak into the mike in order to be heard. Some of them, anyway. Given that they're all acting professionals, you'd think they'd know stuff like this.

On a more substantive note, I was happy to see the The Hurt Locker win. It was flawed in some ways, I thought, but basically a pretty good movie. The griping about it that suddenly reached a fever pitch before the show seemed pretty ridiculous all around. On the other hand, I would have given the Best Actress award to Meryl Streep. I don't normally like the award going to actors who play a real-life character, which seems more like mimicry than a real acting challenge, but I'd make an exception this time. She was great as Julia Child. And please, next year can we go back to five Best Picture nominees instead of ten?

1Sloppy journalism! Sorry about that. Actually, the telecast was scheduled to go from 5:30 to 8:30, so they're still propagating the official fiction that it's a 3-hour show. Apologies. But it's still a 3½-hour show and it always has been. The purpose behind the fiction remains unclear.

How Healthcare Got Its Mojo Back

| Sun Mar. 7, 2010 1:57 PM EST

On the day after Scott Brown's election victory in Massachussetts, healthcare reform looked dead. Republicans were crowing, public opinion was turning, and Democrats were scurrying for cover like rats in a sewer. So what turned things around? In the LA Times today, Mark Barabak and Duke Helfand argue that Anthem Blue Cross was a big part of it:

Unwittingly, Anthem helped revive Democratic efforts. Every letter it sent out was a political gift for Obama. The only thing missing was a shiny red bow.

....On Super Bowl Sunday, the president appeared on CBS, chatting with Katie Couric...."One of the major insurers in California just announced that in the individual market they're increasing their premiums by 39%," Obama said, three days after the story broke. "That's a portrait of the future if we don't do something now."

....For months, Obama had been on the defensive, facing electoral setbacks, declining poll numbers, dissident Democrats and stories that highlighted the deal-making often needed to grind out legislation. Finally, the administration felt it was on offense. "BIG insurance rate increases and MORE coming," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wrote on his new Twitter account, linking to coverage of the Anthem story. Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, sent a letter to WellPoint challenging the increases, and summoned industry executives to the White House to explain themselves. Obama paid a surprise visit to the meeting, bearing a letter from an Ohio cancer survivor complaining that her premium was rising more than 40% this year. Obama said he planned to carry the letter to public events to remind people of the stakes in the healthcare overhaul.

Well, Anthem certainly didn't hurt the cause of healthcare reform, that's for sure. Whether it was really a big bellwether in the other direction is a different question, and one I'm not so sure of. I guess, as in most things, I tend to believe that the turnaround on healthcare was driven mostly by fundamentals: panic subsided, as it usually does; Democrats realized that passing nothing and looking hapless was political suicide; and a plan came together for passage that looked doable — and that had strong backing from the entire party leadership. That probably accounts for 80% of what happened.

But who knows? Maybe 80% wouldn't have been enough. So thanks, Anthem Blue Cross! Your timing couldn't have been better if we'd been paying you.

Governing American, GOP Style

| Sat Mar. 6, 2010 7:35 PM EST

I think cartoonist David Fitzsimmons captures the Republican midterm strategy pretty well here. Any questions?